Can the Dutch Turn Back the Populist Tide?

Can the Dutch Turn Back the Populist Tide?
AP Photo/Michael Probst
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After the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit referendum in Great Britain, eyes now turn to a slew of elections taking place in Europe. The Dutch vote first, on March 15, and elections in the political powerhouses of Germany and France are to follow. The Netherlands is often seen as a bellwether for broader European political sentiment. Will Dutch establishment parties turn back the populist tide?

Incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte has led a government coalition of his free market-conservative VVD party and the left-centrist social democrats of the PvdA. The coalition was born of necessity. In 2012, left-leaning Dutch voters voted PvdA to keep the VVD out of government. Right-wing voters likewise voted VVD to keep the PvdA out of power.

Eleven parties were voted into Parliament. Of 150 seats, with 76 seats needed for a majority, VVD and PvdA together won 79. By mutual exclusion both parties won, and by the same mechanism they were condemned to work together.

Unsurprisingly, neither voter block appreciated this coalition very much.

This centrist government was seen as a rebuke of the nationalist unilateralism proposed by Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party, or PVV, a populist in the mold of Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Great Britain’s Nigel Farage.

And such a coalition of opposites was destined to end in disappointment. The government quickly angered right- and left-wing voters alike. Its popularity fell, and the anti-establishment, populist PVV rose to record highs in the polls. This coincided with a shift in priorities in the minds of Dutch voters, much as happened in the United States.

Voters everywhere prioritize

Voters ordinarily elect politicians to solve pressing problems. In 2008 in the United States, voters elected Barack Obama to fix an economy that was in the doldrums. Obama challenged the status quo, beating its defenders Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and John McCain in the presidential election.

Worries over terrorism and cultural identity were very much alive in 2008 and 2012. But voters simply prioritized jobs and the economy, which drowned out all other issues.

In 2016, as fears over the economy subsided, voters prioritized terrorism and questions of cultural identity. It was Donald Trump’s turn to own those issues and challenge the status quo. Again its defender, Hillary Clinton, was defeated.

As the American voter goes … ?

According to voter research conducted all over Europe in recent years, voters’ priorities have shifted in much the same direction.

As economies improved and unemployment fell, terrorist attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis brought to the fore the kind of worries to which the vexed defenders of the status quo seem to have no answer. Established governing parties have seemed everywhere under siege.

Political leaders and pundits believed that the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump would give populist parties in Europe yet another boost. However, in France and Germany, the rise of Trump has spurred a highly motivated counter-movement.

The anti-Trump vote

Now Dutch polls are starting to show that Wilders’ warm ideological embrace of Trump is turning off voters in the Netherlands as well. It turns out that even though Wilders holds significant political capital among his supporters, the idea of a Trumpist party winning is actually pushing some of them away. They are either switching to the non-voting-block -- indicating they will stay home on election day -- or moving to other, more centrist parties.

Yet something is missing. While center-left presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is surfing a wave of anti-Trump sentiment in his drive to defeat Le Pen in France, and Martin Schulz of the German Social Democratic Party is doing the same against the AfD, no such wave of support yet exists for any specific party in the Netherlands.

Dutch leftist and centrist parties have barely moved from where they sat three months ago. If anything, Dutch voters seem to be turning away from the election campaign altogether, not tuning in to it.

Among both the left- and right-wing voting blocks, a relatively large number of voters remain undecided.

No leader of the pack

The reason behind all this is that the Dutch election campaign has become more about personal leadership and the personality of party leaders than ever before. All of them have said that they wish to become the next prime minister. Heretofore, leaders of smaller parties didn’t explicitly vie for the highest office publicly.

Now, however, even the leader of the Groenlinks (Green-left) party with currently only four seats (of 150) in Parliament said he wants to become premier. This led the leader of a right-wing Christian party -- currently with three seats in Parliament -- to quip that, contrary to all other leaders, he would be fine not to become prime minister.

This while Dutch voters appear to be throwing every party to the left of Geert Wilders’ PVV into the same block of indiscernible defenders of the status quo. So far, not one party leader has been able to light the fire of enthusiasm in the way Macron is doing in France and Schulz is in Germany.

With only three weeks to go before the March 15 election, not one party is riding high in the polls. It now comes down to a few nationally televised election debates. Each party leader hopes to outshine the competition solely on the strength of their character traits and personalities.

So far, not one Barack Obama has stood up; they all appear to be Hillary Clintons. Their main strength seems to be that Wilders chose to be best buddies with the highly unpopular American president.

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